Thursday, June 24, 2021

Critical Race Theory: How Did We Get Here?

After Barrack Obama became president, there was this after-glow as if “now we’re in a post-racial time in America.” But that wasn’t true, was it? 

Things changed in 2016 when Former Guy came into office. He took the lid off of what was already a simmering pot of injustice, spit into the pot and then watched it boil over.

The discussion around Critical Race Theory comes from this confluence of two things. The so-called woke movement and the very real white nationalist movement via the Former Guy. 

The white nationalist movement which desperately wants a continuation of the codification of the white gaze of U.S. History and knows that the way to keep that going is thru public education. And that means kids.

I may have used this paraphrased quote before - from Hitler, no less - “If I have the children, I don’t need their parents.”

Probably the most important goal is to give students a whitewashed (sorry) education in history and civics. How was the U.S. created? Who were the creators? Just how did American exceptionalism come about and look at us, don’t we deserve that term? 

But also, who was here first and on whose backs did all this work fall to, well, that’s just some kind of footnote. 

In talking about race, I hope we can find some common understandings like race is a social construct that used to mean a group/family that you associated with.  Here’s a very good 10-minute video from the National Museum of African-American History on the subject. If you have middle school or high school students, I recommend it. In fact, there’s a plethora of good writing and videos at the website; highly recommended. Here are some important thoughts on the evolution of race:

  • Inherent to the change of race to mean physical attributes, then came the rise of whiteness, meaning an ingrained kind of superiority to others.
  • Following that idea of whiteness, from Kant and Hegel, we see this idea of the big things, the great things, the notable things in history come from whites and all others are just sacrificial subcultures to do whites’ bidding.
From a story in Esquire:

The Department of Education's latest proposed priorities run roughshod over existing history and civics programs established with bipartisan support, in order to push critical race theory on public school students and keep pace with woke sensibilities.

“American students deserve a rock solid civics education grounded in actual fact, not divisive propaganda that tells them they're a little more than a product of their racial background.”

Actual fact? We can easily find current textbooks that say little about slavery in the U.S., that ignore the role of the Chinese in the building of the railroads, and don’t explain what happened to Native Americans along the way. What I find disturbing are the words that many seem to believe but don’t say outloud - “we won.” To the victor go the spoils. It’s disturbing. 

White people were able - yes, with the help of a few Africans on the continent of Africa- to enslave black people through force. White people were able to kill - either thru weapons or disease - many Native Americans. The rest were lied to over and over about what they would get if they stopped fighting.  

Then we come to this notion of colorblindness or “I don’t see color.” Most research shows that children don’t see race until the idea is put forth to them. I would assume this would be by family members, maybe in school. 

What you hear from those against CRT is two-fold.

One, telling the full story of the history of the U.S. might make some white children uncomfortable or even upset. 

Two, taking the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. as their mantra - 

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

If we talk about race in schools, it’s just making brown and black students “victims” and not believing in their gifts. Or so they say.

I found this good story from CBS news on using King’s words.

The conservative view:

For many conservatives, the modern meaning of King's quote is clear: Special consideration for one racial or ethnic group is a violation of the dream.

The quote is like the Declaration of Independence, says Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that studies race and ethnicity. In years past, he says, America may have needed to grow into the words, but today they must be obeyed to the letter.

"The Declaration of Independence says all men are created equal," Clegg says. "Nobody thinks it doesn't really mean what it says because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. King gave a brilliant and moving quotation, and I think it says we should not be treating people differently on the basis of skin color."

 Considering race as a factor in affirmative action keeps the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow "sore and festering. It encourages beneficiaries to rely on ethnicity rather than self-improvement to get ahead," wrote the author, George Leef.

Yes, business and the government have shown us that all employees are considered equal. Really? 

 King’s children:

“I don't think we can ignore race," says Martin Luther King III.

"What my father is asking is to create the climate where every American can realize his or her dreams," he says. "Now what does that mean when you have 50 million people living in poverty?"

Bernice King says her father is asking us "to get to a place - we're obviously not there - but to get to a place where the first thing that we utilize as a measurement is not someone's external designation, but it really is trying to look beyond that into the substance of a person in making certain decisions, to rid ourselves of those kinds of prejudices and biases that we often bring to decisions that we make."

That takes a lot of "psychological work," she says, adding, "He's really challenging us."

Those of us who are white can never truly know what it is like to be a person of color in the U.S. especially being Black. We can read books and articles, watch tv series’ or movies, and listen to music. 

No one who is white can understand the emotional labor of being a person of color. 

There’s a thing called code switch. It’s when you act differently with different groups of people. Most of us did it as kids - we were one way with friends and then a different way with grandma and teachers. Perhaps as you got older, you were a different person at work. It’s a way to stay in your lane and be recognized by others. 

But imagine doing it nearly all the time, every single day. Being forced to believe that there is just one “American culture.” I don’t know if any of you have seen Padma Lakshmi’s show, Taste the Nation - it’s quite good. But honestly, if we didn’t have black and brown people, what would we eat? Mexican food, Asian food (Chinese, Thai, Japanese, etc.), Indian food and so on. Our big “American” food for our Independence Day, hot dogs and hamburgers? Created by Germans (so yes, they were white but they weren’t American). And then we have Italian food that comes largely from Southern Italy where Italians are considered “darker.” 

We would have almost no food without black and brown people and immigrants. I’m sure we could get by but who wants a life without pizza? 

American public education cannot allow the teaching of history to be tamped down because some want to interpret King’s words for their own ends. 

So how did we get here? The same way many American issues are talked about, with fear and rancor. That needs to stop if our Republic is to survive. 



seattle citizen said...

This is some mighty fine writing, Melissa. Some if your best. And such an important topic.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Whiteness studies is interesting because few understand historical context. There is no country called "white". Who is considered "white" has changed over time, it is an unstable construct. It also does not have the same meaning outside of the US. Not all who are considered "white" in the US 2021 have White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ancestral roots. Historians state that if you would have asked someone in the late 1800's if they were "white" they would not have understood what you meant. People were treated & viewed differently and even considered different "races" based upon religion and ethnicity. Many now considered "white" were a different shade of white or not white. That is connected to their ancestral histories (& discrimination) back in the countries from which they immigrated. But few Americans learn about those histories within the US or outside of the US. Regarding the current ideological movement of BLM and similar, there is a movement happening more similar to the Black Power movement than MLK unite all people civil rights movement. Some African American scholars such as Cedric Johnson & others are critical and feel that the greatest civil rights progress was made by movements that united people with similar interests. https://nonsite.org/the-triumph-of-black-lives-matter-and-neoliberal-redemption/ see also this interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wvmbm4jjMK0 and https://catalyst-journal.com/2017/11/panthers-cant-save-us-cedric-johnson Some feel it is being driven by those in the billionaire elite class to divide people with common interests along racial lines, thus keep the status quo economically.


Anonymous said...

Listening to the podcast you linked in the other CRT thread, the goal would not be for a CRT lens to provide "facts" to "replace" history. It would apply another perspective to history. It does not erase contributions of people we have learned about. It adds to it. In CT which is a linked overarching framework, in truth there are many voices and perspectives. To quote Obama in a recent interview "nobody has a monopoly on truth". How can we understand history in its totality of we don't learn about it all. There are not "good and bad actors". History in fact is often far too complex. Individuals are often more complex then a 2021 understanding. That sort of thinking actually does not take into account CT or positionality. Historians caution not to throw the baby out with the bath water, example as Cornell West or Henry Louis Gates have tried to convey. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/04/19/cornel-west-howard-classics/ See this interview with Gates as well on the removing of statues https://time.com/5006942/henry-louis-gates-jr-interview/


Anonymous said...

BTW Henry Louis Gates in that interview in my last post here is addressing the far left, as well as the far right. See his opinion for example on removing statues does not erase the history. Instead move them to museum and surround them with other statues to tell the full story. The entire interview is brief but fantastic in relation to this subject and political debates. There is related and deeper debate/struggle going in some circles, that question how we can continue to create unity as a nation. In academia there are both conservative and liberal scholars (plus those in the media) who value tolerance, intellectual diversity who are working together across academic institutions to foster an open environment to learning and civil discourse on college campuses. https://heterodoxacademy.org/